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For a saunter down Crazy Avenue, I stuck the 25i into the big rig where it replaced ModWright's KWA-100SE fronted by a €24.000 Concert Fidelity CF-080LSX preamp to drive the top AudioSolutions Rhapsody 200. For these big speakers my 15-watt FirstWatt SIT-1 monos have plenty of power for the room. What they don't have is quite sufficiently low output impedance to properly control the deliberately underdamped ported twin woofers. The purpose of the Clones exercise wasn't sanity. It was learning whether speaker control would be an issue when raw power wasn't. Obviously you'd never mate this amp to a preamp of this pedigree (if any preamp at all - though remember, the 25i has no active linestage, it's just a power chip + passive pot). To observe sonic changes I could only change one thing. Should our pigmy handle the load, it'd be mini mission accomplished and off to a more realistic combo in the smaller system upstairs.

To make this sillier still, Funjoe's brick parked atop the ModWright. This rubbed in how the latter's casing could swallow up six clones. First up was La Vida Nueva, a nuevo flamenco effort by 6moons reader Denis Sedovich from Russia's Novosibirsk. Opening up the 25i's pot fully—preamp muted, no signal—caused some power supply noise. This got completely inaudible at high noon. That's where it stayed, with the Japanese 12AU7/hybrid preamp making up the difference. Hola! As a shin kick to any opamposition, the Clones passed the test. No, low-end control wasn't quite the equal of the far burlier ModWright but superior to the Pass SET(ransistor) monos. The sound with clone rather than mod was a bit drier and more incisive but truthfully didn't change all that much.

Take Roby Lakatos' electrifying Live from Budapest album taped at the city's swanky Thália Theater and released on Deutsche Grammophone with whom he is under exclusive contract. It had all the swaggering Gipsy primas violin sauce I could want, all the rollicking cymbalom gallop, equally hoofin' upright bass canter and amazing genre-crossing piano of Kálmán Cséki who morphs from Jazz swing to rumbling honkytonk via unnamable crossroads. Most important, the stocky Falstaffian soloist with unruly mop of hair, Dali-esque moustache and inherited Guarneri del Gesú fiddle who freely grabs from Grappelli, Menuhin, Liszt, Johann Strauß, John Williams and Charles Aznavour had fully developed tone and involving projection. Violins are really telling on those scores. The 25i's obvious speed had a field day with this music's own speed and breakneck rhythms. But it was just as compelling during the more honeyed interludes of pure pathos.

To cause a more serious performance rift from where the big rig had been before getting cloned meant out with the preamp. This was the more critical piece of this puzzle. Now the depth dimension suffered and layering flattened out as did tone density. Colors faded some and the innate sense of drive chilled. Based on this experiment I predict that Dan Wright's most recent 5-tube mod to Oppo's BDP-105 universal player—two 6SN7 signal-path bottles, three in the external power supply for regulation and rectification—might make for a stunning integral source for the 25i. It handles 24/192 asynchronous USB for computer sources, any actual music disc in the catalogue and fixed-gain preamplification. The clone throws in analog attenuation and speaker drive. And yes, the modified Oppo commands $2.295. But that's really the sort of company the 25i deserves.

For my solid-state take on it, I had the NuForce SE Edition Oppo BDP-93 upstairs. Running it directly into the 25i to bypass TruLife Audio's Athena 6H30-based preamp would make for a realistic front end. For speakers I'd start insane—my €15.000 Boenicke Audio B10 sealed 4-driver 2-ways—before hitting normalcy with Amphion's Ion+. From a reviewer's perspective the problem with Clones Audio is very basic. Someone working at its price level owns matching ancillaries but couldn't know how high its sonic ambitions might actually reach. Someone who'd recognize that if perhaps not feeling too keen to admit it no longer owns components which would make for a real-world system.

Though clearly outclassed by the usual FirstWatt SIT-2 on ambient finesse, overall magnification power, tone and 3D soundstaging, the 25i's leaner flatter reading still was well complemented by these mostly omni solid-wood speakers with their horizontally opposed 10-inch woofers running up high on each cheek. By design the B10 involves the playback acoustic. This incorporates more reflected sound and thus rebuilds a wetter overall atmosphere. It pays dividends with a concert DVD like Daniel Barenboim's Tango Argentina. It chronicles the last day of 2006 in Buenos Aires in front of 10.000 backed by the full local symphony orchestra, a típica formation of four bandoneons, four violins, upright bass and piano plus the Argentine conductor on concert grand. With a more intimate setting like the Taksim Trio's breakout album, any holographic soundstage losses, stepped-down image focus and less elastic textures telegraphed less. This most certainly didn't sound like a $529 amp. Yes I could tell the difference blindfolded. Equally true, I'd get used to it just as quickly. Never underestimate the ear/brain's adaptability. Perennial dissatisfaction relies on ongoing hard reminders. Stop comparing, be happy is the trick.

With the Finnish Ion+ I'd finally joined common sense as a match a paying customer would duplicate. Here the lack of a pre-out again precluded convenient addition of a subwoofer which would have injected final seriousness. At about 2.5 meters away, I could have done with more fill to 40Hz. But that was hardly the fault of the 25i and simply the innate limitation of any small monitor in this sector. Disregarding the concomitantly leaner whiter reading—subtract bass and the color palette loses black—the gainclone from Hong Kong made the most of the white boxes' staging chops and vocal immediacy. The latter is supported by the dishy tweeter waveguide. That smoothes the radiation pattern in the crossover region. In this combination, with the monitors properly toed in, isolated and angled up on Ardán Audio's brilliant Irish stands, the 25i won extra points for soundstage depth which exceeded the prior far costlier boxes.

This system majored on speed and rhythmic snap. For movies it also meant heightened intelligibility of the spoken word. This was particularly useful on BBC productions. Thick Northern brogue translated better into recognizable English for us Yankee expats. Could you equal this presentation with like coin on class D? Not if you meant to retain the sparkling top end. Recent ICEpower implementations based on their latest-gen modules in the value sector all sounded generally warmer and minorly fuzzy on top by comparison. If you fancy a fresh energetic sound with bell-like clarity, good oomph and higher-than-average image density or 'color heft', I think the clone has it.

Conclusion. There's nothing new about the Clones Audio 25i, just a good turn-key price and bomb-proof build. DIYers on the cheap still frown at €629. Average folks without soldering skills or time and inclination are grateful. In the right context the 25i is far more than short-term starter kit. With already proven sonics and a foregone conclusion, my job was nothing but confirmation that after all these years the gainclone concept remains alive and kicking. The glossies tell us that hifi breakthroughs are a routine matter come the first of next month. You'd think that we must long since have moved well beyond the humble chip amp. Not so. While I no longer had the Serbian Dayens Ampino of equal power, features and roughly price on hand, I'm convinced the 25i would be its sonic equal if not pass it. And on build quality it's no comparison. The 25i smokes it.

Should one of the inputs get converted into a pre-out for subwoofing, qualifiers on what's achievable within reason would all go out the window. A quick musical sub would perfectly complement the reflexes and fresh energetic nearly feisty attitude of this gainclone to make it weightier and darker on the smaller affordable speakers it's likely to hang with. That's from the perspective of what the 25i can do with mega 5-driver 3-ways. With such floorstanders a similar extra bonus is achievable with a nice valve pre. That really makes the gainclone turn heads. At 20dB the MiniMax has excessive gain. Something similar with low gain (or a tube DAC) could be heaven-made. 25i pure into Zu Audio's new Druid V could be another happy combo despite the latter's 10-times-plus sticker. That's because allocating the lion's share of your budget on a superior speaker that's easy to drive, then going after a copasetic lower-power budget amp strikes me as making your money go farther than attempting the reverse. Regardless, the Clones Audio 25i is a very uncomplicated way to have fun with the tunes. Hats off to Funjoe for spending his evenings after a real day job to help others with it!
Clones Audio website